Ryan Radia recently posted an impassioned and eminently reasonable defense of copyright with which I generally agree, especially since he acknowledges that “our Copyright Act abounds with excesses and deficiencies[.]” However, Ryan does this in the context of defending broadcaster rights against internet retransmitters, such as ivi and Aereo, and I have a bone to pick with that. He writes,
[Copyright] is why broadcasters may give their content away for free to anybody near a metropolitan area who has an antenna and converter box, while simultaneously preventing third parties like ivi from distributing the same exact content (whether free of charge or for a fee). At first, this may seem absurd, but consider how many websites freely distribute their content on the terms they see fit. That’s why I can read all the Techdirt articles I desire, but only on Techdirt’s website. If copyright protection excluded content distributed freely to the general public, creators of popular ad-supported content would soon find others reproducing their content with fewer ads.
I think what Ryan is missing is that copyright is not why broadcasters give away their content for free over the air. The real reason is that they are required to do so as a condition of their broadcast license. In exchange for free access to one of the main inputs of their business–spectrum–broadcasters agree to make their signal available freely to the public. Also, the fact that TV stations broadcast to metro areas (and not regionally or nationally) is not the product of technical limitations or business calculus, but because the FCC decided to only offer metro-sized licenses in the name of “localism.” That’s not a system I like, but it’s the system we have.
So, if what the public gets for giving broadcasters free spectrum is the right to put up an antenna and grab the signals without charge, why does it matter how they do it? To me a service like Aereo is just an antenna with a very long cable to one’s home, just like the Supreme Court found about CATV systems in Fortnightly. What broadcasters are looking to do is double-dip. They want free spectrum, but then they also want to use copyright to limit how the public can access their over-the-air signals. To address Ryan’s analogy from above, Techdirt is not like a broadcaster because it isn’t getting anything from the government in exchange for a “public interest” obligation.
Ideally, of course, spectrum would be privatized. In that world I think we’d see little if any ad-supported broadcast TV because there are much better uses for the spectrum. If there was any broadcast TV, it would be national or regional as there is hardly any market for local content. And the signal would likely be encrypted and pay-per-view, not free over-the-air. In such a world the copyright system Ryan favors makes sense, but that’s not the world we live in. As long as the broadcasters are getting free goodies like spectrum and must-carry, their copyright claims ring hollow.